On previous trips, we covered over 500km to reach Ranong so we were in position to head to the pier early Monday morning. This year, we are sticking to the Gulf side of the Malay peninsula, so we should have a slightly more leisurely day, and we will stay at a resort I’ve never visited before. Change is good.
To beat the morning traffic, we must be checked out and in our vans driving away at 5:30. A couple times, I’ve been “that guy” who holds up the group, but this year, I vowed not to be last, setting my alarm for 3:00. By 2:00 I was already awake, so clearly I have not adjusted to the local time just yet.
Morning escapes from Bangkok follow a well-established routine: speeding South under cover of darkness to the Inthanon coffee shop at a truck stop, then seemingly just a few yards up the highway, stopping to sniff and purchase locally made Khlong Khon shrimp paste and sea salt, then watching the sun rise along the highway until we reach a friendly breakfast stop with a huge range of ready-to-eat soups, curries, and stir fries. I never seem to create the ideal combination when choosing two dishes to ladle over my rice, but everything is pretty good and I got donations from those who found one of their choices a bit too spicy for breakfast. We soon were on the road again.
The lead van has Kasma in the front passenger seat and “Sun” (a Thai nickname) in the driver’s seat. Sun has driven on every trip I’ve taken with Kasma. Featuring six plush velour seats with seatbelts, this could be considered the preferred van, so Kasma asked that we switch between the vans on different days so everyone could sample both. The second van has three rows of seats in the passenger area, so there is less leg room in the front row but more room to spread out horizontally. Kasma’s husband Michael sites up front with “Rong” at the wheel. Rong’s endless challenge is to keep up with Sun, who is expert at passing slow moving trucks, cars, and motorcycles. For reduced stress, I suggest not watching the seemingly crazy dance of vehicles on Thai roads too closely.
We would spend the bulk of our morning in Hua Hin, a formerly sleepy beach town frequented by Thai weekenders which has seen considerable new development since the King relocated his primary residence here. We wandered the maze of vendor tables and side shops at the local market, stepping aside for fast-moving hand trucks loaded with merchandise and the occasional motorcycle. Our interest in the fish and vegetables was solely as tourists, but we bought a few snacks for the road, some seasonings for home, and some beach mats and other accessories “for the islands.”
On the way back to the vans, we stopped at a store noted for its desserts and picked up a heavy inventory of coconut custards and gelatinous treats that taste much better than they sound. Just out of downtown on the way back to the highway we stopped at a large new “floating market” created for tourists to visit with Kasma’s Goddaughter, from a Hmong hill tribe near Mae Sa/Chiang Mai, who has a shop here with her husband. Most of their merchandise is not produced by her tribe in the North and may be sourced from around Thailand or beyond. We found various cute things for people back home. (No spoilers for you, dear reader.)
Our next meal would be at Sunee restaurant in Pranburi. Situated right off the beach, the restaurant is cooled by sea breezes, and is within sight of one of the major local industries, dried squid. Since we were early, we toured the squid operation where women (mostly) clean innumerable squid of various sizes, and men (mostly) lay them out on racks for drying in the sun, rotating the racks from time to time. A local delicacy is “solar squid” dried in the sun only for 1 day so it remains a bit chewy. Deep fried without any breading and served with a spicy dipping sauce, it is delicious.
The other dishes making up our seafood feast included enormous whole prawns with a garlicky dipping sauce; finely minced baby clams fried to a crisp and served with shallots and cilantro in a hot and tangy lime-based dressing; tender scallops with Thai basil and dangerous green peppercorn clusters; a whole deep fried crispy fish topped with “three-flavor sauce,” a rich blend of shallots and garlic cooked with tamarind, palm sugar, and chillies to the texture of caramelized onion jam; stir-fried crab meat topped with crispy fried holy basil leaves; mixed vegetables in Thai oyster sauce; and a fiercely spicy hot and sour soup of mixed seafood. To heal our tongues, we liberally applied coconut custard and agar jelly desserts from that shop in Hua Hin.
After a lengthy stint on the highway, we headed for the coast and eventually parallel to the beach. We pulled up to Nong Mai Sairi Resort and stretched our legs in the pleasant, if not actually cool, breeze. We drew keys and I got cabin #1, which features an oceanfront window. Outstanding luck. After sorting out a few things I headed over to cabin #7 where some cheap local whiskey was being poured. With the help of an English-Thai-English dictionary, we made a bit of conversation with our drivers. I certainly should have learned a bit more Thai by now (hanging head in shame), but we are where we are.
The resort restaurant is popular with locals and travelers as well as resort guests, so they must be doing something right. We started with a bracing salad of perfectly chewy (but not rubbery) squid with garlic and herbs in a hot and sour dressing. The sweetness of a plate of fresh crab meat was tempered by the heat of roughly cracked pepper. Tamarind prawns featured a nicely balanced version of the classic syrupy sweet, sour and hot sauce. Our fried fish was topped with an unfamiliar herb salad featuring Chinese celery, shallots, green peppercorns, tiny pear-shaped tomatoes, and toasted cashews. Our mildest dishes were fried shrimp cakes (similar to fish cakes, but fluffier and not at all rubbery) and pak liang, a leafy green, stir-fried with egg. For dessert we dipped into our stash of confections from Hua Hin, enjoying a coconut-taro custard and a rich coconut cream with coconut “sport,” a translucent, gelatinous type of coconut meat that occurs in a certain percentage of coconut. Any kind of coconut, traditional or exotic, helps the palate recover from a spicy meal.
After dinner, I requested someone figure out why my air conditioning was not working, as the air inside cabin #1 was still much warmer than outside. Unfortunately, it could not be fixed so I moved to cabin #4, a huge room with two double beds but its own quirks, such as a toilet that burbled and sighed every couple of minutes. As usual, I promptly passed out. With a leisurely morning ahead, I hardly worried about setting my alarm. But I did, just in case.